Monthly Archives: January 2017

A Life Lived Fully Can Change the Universe

Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight
Review by Gary Gonser, SFBATCC

By Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Patricia Miller

For tickets / schedule :
Marin Art & Garden Center Barn Theatre
Ross, CA
Ross Valley Players

RUN: January 13 – February 5, 2017
RATING: 4.5 of 5 stars

(January 14, 2017)

Emilie Defends Her Life Ross Valley Players

Photo by Ross Valley Players

Emilie becomes the retelling of the life of La Marquise du Châtelet, with all the nuances remembered to create a coherent fabric. She existed and the events are real. The rich story of her life is laid out after her death, by Emilie herself interacting with her main characters.

Lauren Gunderson’s premise is superb to sweep the viewer into the story at the right time and place of the adult Marquise, to take us where we need to go: into the Age of Enlightenment of the 18th century. Contrary to our current world outlook, the enlightenment focused on science to bring us out of the door opened by the Renaissance, and into the light of progress. Adding Voltaire as the counterpoint to our Emilie provides the perfect balance to the telling.

This play is an amazing production. Gunderson’s script is difficult with concepts that could be lost in a lesser production. Patricia Miller has laid out a feast of ideas for us in a coherent fashion. The French and American Revolutions had not yet happened, Newton was developing his ideas of the universe, and Louis XIV ruled France with an open attitude that fostered scientific exploration. 300 years later, we focus on one woman who lived and worked in that time.

Emilie is our perfect heroine: rich, educated, aristocratic, and published. But she was not happy with the results of her life. The play has Emilie interacting with her history again. She was fond of tying love, as the human dilemma, and philosophy, as the scientific dilemma, together into an understandable science of the universe. These ideas are fused to suggest that a life lived fully can change the universe. The play sets the stage for her to reshape her destiny to realize this end, or not.

Emilie Defends Her Life Ross Valley Players

Photo by Ross Valley Players

Robyn Grahn is fantastic as Emilie. Her surprise and authenticity at the retelling is packed with emotion and energy that sweeps along with her. Here, she is able to interact with her life and change it; what a promise! Grahn takes advantage of the concept and runs with it: flowing from situation to documentation to understanding to speaking out against the limits imposed upon her by her age and peers. This is no small feat. I congratulate Grahn on her wonderful achievement in this production.

Catherine Luedtke worked no small magic as the probable Voltaire who loved Emilie, but who also loved the superiority of man as promoted by 18th century France. Balancing Voltaire’s humanity with the elements of a man wanting to succeed in his world of the court and the scientific community was tricky. Luedtke played up to the challenge, while remaining appropriately in the background to Emilie’s development.

Tamar Cohn played many parts to Emilie’s retelling. She was maid, mom, critic, and collaborator to round out and add color to many scenes. Cohn’s obvious flexibility comes out on this stage. As Emilie’s mother, Cohn explains just how happy she is in her very small world in the household. We can’t wait for Emilie to explode at the very thought of being so confined. Cohn was never the “fifth wheel” of the scenes, but became the very talented opposition needed to complete the role.

Emilie Defends Her Life Ross Valley Players

Photo by Ross Valley Players

Neiry Rojo moved through time with grace and sexuality, playing the “real” Emilie with Voltaire, then Voltaire’s niece and other parts. Rojo was never an extension of the retelling, but was the embodiment of the physical interactions needed to prove the love in relationship to the philosophical questions so required by our heroine.

Shoresh Alaudini plays many parts through Emilie’s life, from her husband to her lover. He is a new actor and works well in these parts.

Reliving one’s life is difficult. There are so many things that we forget in the retelling. Emilie’s set is perfect to separate out the science in a classroom opposite the love in the bedroom. The center of the stage is clear to develop Emilie’s relationships to both. Appropriate to the Age of Enlightenment, Grahn smoothly uses mathematics to define the forces of nature in her life, writing and modifying the equations to match her and our development.

Holocaust Journey in ‘Becoming Dr. Ruth’

Review of Becoming Dr. Ruth
By Mark St. Germain
Directed by Elizabeth Craven & Betty Abramson
For tickets / schedule :
Main Stage West, Sebastopol

RUN: January 5-22, 2017
RATING: 4 of 5 stars

(January 7, 2017)

Becoming Dr. Ruth Main Stage West

Photo by Larry R. Wagner for the Mendocino Theatre Company.

Dr. Ruth’s dry wit and accessibility transformed sex education and therapy, moving her from a 15-minute radio show into becoming an international celebrity. She is a master at humorous and challenging responses to questions about sexuality, building on years of study and an agile mind. Becoming Dr. Ruth is a reminiscence of the daunting childhood that created her strength and independence. Diane Larson’s scenic design offers a cozy lived-in apartment filled with aging chairs, books, and knick-knacks. Dr. Ruth mourns her third husband who has just passed away, leading her to question who she is without him.

While there are moments of scintillating advice, Becoming Dr. Ruth is primarily the story of her childhood as a Jew escaping from Hitler’s regime. Her singular narrative is told in a matter-of-fact style by Ann Woodhead, adding to the horrific realism. One of the lucky few to be chosen for the Kindertransport program out of Germany, her situation did not improve much in the “kindly” host country. At ten years old, she had to fend for herself, slowly realizing she would never see her parents again. Instead of giving up, she fought to find the person she wanted to be, at times literally, living everywhere from a hard-working kibbutz to the classical avenues of Paris. She discovered her home and purpose in New York, where her dedication and quirky humor found an audience.

Becoming Dr. Ruth Main Stage West

Photo by Larry R. Wagner for the Mendocino Theatre Company.

Woodhead uses items in the apartment to piece together Dr. Ruth’s past, gently wrapping them in packing paper, adding movement to an otherwise inactive play. It is a quietly moving performance, without flash or drama, yet Woodhead keeps attention on her story, with Dr. Ruth’s unique accent and mannerisms. Historical photos are projected through the apartment window in parallel with Woodhead’s performance, and Elizabeth Craven’s sound design brings locations to life—the Kindertransport train station, saying farewell to her mother for the last time, and bustling energy of Times Square. The play rewards an imaginative audience, augmented by the authenticity of Craven and Betty Abramson’s direction.

Becoming Dr. Ruth challenges preconceptions, offering a woman who pushed forward to discover who she was, willing to take risks, and searching to recapture the sense of family that was lost to Auschwitz. In her journey we can discover the strength to keep moving forward, making the difficult decisions necessary to fully realize our potential.

Sharon McNight in the Glitzy ‘Red Hot Mama’

Red Hot Mama: The Sophie Tucker Story
By Sharon McNight
For tickets & schedule:
Cinnabar Theater
Petaluma, CA

December 31, 2016 – January 29, 2017

RATING: 3.5 of 5 stars

(January 6, 2017)

Red Hot Mama Sophie Tucker Cinnabar Theater

Photo from Cinnabar Theater and Sharon McNight

Sophie Tucker defied the expectations of her time, pursuing a theater career instead of staying at home to care for her son, attacking challenges and overcoming them, and taking the entertainment world by storm as a big, beautiful woman who was proud of it, a sentiment immortalized in I Don’t Want to Get Thin. She was unapologetically passionate, pouring her fiery personality into bawdy songs that shocked 20th century audiences. Tony award nominee Sharon McNight steps into those glittering and formidable shoes with an engaging one woman musical filled with dozens of classic Sophie Tucker songs, repartee with the audience, and vignettes set in various dressing rooms, recreated by scenic designer Wayne Hovey, including a run down theater scrawled with graffiti on peeling paint.

Cinnabar has been transformed into an atmospheric cabaret; Red Hot Mama encourages audience participation, from McNight’s flirtatious quips to sing-alongs projected in silent film era inspired cards above the stage. It is an ideal introduction to theater, or for an intimate romantic evening enjoying McNight’s glorious voice belting out memorable pieces such as Hula Lou, If Your Kisses Can’t Hold the Man You Love (Then Your Tears Won’t Bring Him Back) and Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love. Tucker worked with legendary composers: Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George & Ira Gershwin, and Harry M. Woods to name a few. She was in the forefront of new movements, recording wax cylinders with Thomas Edison, appearing in “talkies” as early as 1929, and was so popular as a vaudeville artist that she gave a command performance for King George V at the London Palladium. She was known for dazzling gowns and orchids, recreated in a lovely array by costume designer Patti Whitelock, concluding with Tucker’s trademark furs and feathers for the finale.

Sharon McNight captures Tucker’s powerful presence, mingling it with vulnerable moments through her life—discovering the death of her mother, and contemplating the early days of Tucker’s career that were a difficult struggle. She deftly changes focus to include everyone in the audience, shifting between sides of the stage, and calling out to the far back to make sure they feel part of the experience. Jan Martinelli (bass) and John Shebalin (drums) act as accompaniment and comedic foils. Richard Riccardi portrays her pianist and music director Ted Shapiro. A lack of sufficient rehearsal time affects the production, which will most likely be more polished later in January. McNight’s story has a steady flow to it, interspersing background on Sophie Tucker with musical numbers. The denouement is rather awkward in its construction; the audience was not sure when the final applause was meant to take place. This is perhaps a reflection on what Tucker herself used to offer, but without that context it remains confusing.

Red Hot Mama: The Sophie Tucker Story embodies the glamour and delightfully risqué music of the beloved entertainer, while offering insights into Sophie Tucker’s history through Sharon McNight’s well researched and candid portrayal. For a spirited evening with a powerful woman of show business, visit Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma to meet Sophie Tucker.

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